Commentary

Zack Greinke is a changed man

Right-hander at ease despite all the attention that comes with a Cy Young Award

Updated: February 21, 2010, 9:01 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There was a time when Zack Greinke would have been flustered, uptight and borderline cranky over the prospect of holding a media "event" before throwing his first official pitch of the spring.

No more. Now he's just meteorologically challenged.

Greinke, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, arrived for a media gathering at Royals camp Saturday clad in shorts, flip-flops and a summery hooded sweatshirt with the words "U.S. Open" on the front.

Most days, that's suitable attire for February in Arizona. But it was overcast, drizzly and barely 50 degrees Saturday morning. When Greinke's teeth began chattering like a jackhammer and hypothermia loomed, it was clear he had miscalculated in his choice of wardrobe.

"I look like I'm nervous now," Greinke said, "but it's because I'm freezing."

Greinke, 26, is just a humble, dress-down guy in a tuxedo-and-award-presentation world, but his talent decrees that anonymity is a thing of the past. Stars are stars, and even the most reticent don't have the luxury of drifting through life unnoticed.

[+] EnlargeGreinke
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallGreinke no longer has trouble handling himself, on the field or off.

We're 3½ months removed from Greinke's joining Bret Saberhagen and David Cone as the third Royal to win a Cy Young, and the story still has inspiration to spare. He's the introverted former prodigy who nearly quit the game because of social anxiety, then conquered his issues to reach his full potential.

Where the story ends, nobody knows. But it'll be fun to watch things play out from every vantage point except the batter's box.

As Royals camp gets under way, Greinke returns from a transcendent performance in 2009. He led the majors with a 2.16 ERA, tied for second with 26 quality starts, ranked third with 242 strikeouts, and allowed a minuscule 11 homers in 229 1/3 innings pitched.

Greinke's adjusted ERA-plus, which accounts for park factors, was 205 (with 100 being league average). Over the past 20 years, only Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Kevin Brown have done better in a single season.

Royals pitching coach Bob McClure compared Greinke's performance to Ron Guidry's 25-3 effort for the Yankees in 1978. And Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore naturally reflected upon his previous tenure in the Atlanta Braves' front office, where he had the luxury of watching Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz at their peaks.

"At times Zack had Maddux control with his fastball, with Smoltz-type electricity," Moore said. "That's how I've defined it to a lot of people."

Greinke has evolved in so many ways since 2006, when he walked away from baseball for six weeks and his career was jeopardized by depression and other psychological issues. He talked candidly Saturday about how counseling and medication have made him a happier, better-adjusted person.

"I used to get so nervous and upset, I would work out 90 percent of the day," he said. "That's all I would do, because I would always be angry. I probably overtrained a bunch. Now I just do what I need to do and let my body rest."

Much of his personal contentment stems from a more stable and settled life beyond the field. In November, Greinke married longtime girlfriend Emily Kuchar, a former Miss Daytona Beach USA and Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Although Greinke sometimes struggles to express his emotions, he sounded like a walking Hallmark card at one point.

When a writer asked him to comment on the joys of marriage, Greinke replied: "Just her always being there. You look in her eyes, and it just makes you feel good."

Greinke's evolution as a pitcher is subtler and more challenging to dissect, but it's equally profound. Although he's always been athletically gifted, his preparation and attention to detail are remindful of the Big Three on those epic Braves staffs.

While Kansas City's hitters were taking their hacks in the batting cage on a drizzly day at Surprise Stadium, a few Royals scouts discussed the attributes that make Greinke special. Brian Murphy, an assistant to Moore, talked about Grienke's fielding acumen, and observed that while Greinke isn't necessarily fast, he has a knack for getting to first base and beating the runner to the bag.

Greinke I used to get so nervous and upset, I would work out 90 percent of the day. That's all I would do, because I would always be angry. I probably overtrained a bunch. Now I just do what I need to do and let my body rest.

-- Royals pitcher Zack Greinke

"As much as he deserved the Cy Young, I think he deserved a Gold Glove even more," Murphy said. It was not to be, as the AL managers and coaches voted for White Sox starter Mark Buehrle.

Greinke arrived at spring training last year determined to work on a changeup. He had trouble keeping the pitch down in the zone on occasion, but grew more comfortable as the season progressed and mixed it in against both right-handed and left-handed hitters.

According to FanGraphs, Greinke threw the changeup 6.1 percent of the time last season. San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, by comparison, threw his changeup 21.4 percent of the time. But the mere threat of the pitch enhanced Greinke's mystique, and hitters discovered that a 94 mph fastball, devastating slider, slow curve and changeup could make for a demoralizing combination.

"When you destroy somebody's confidence and screw up their balance too, it's like a double whammy," Royals manager Trey Hillman said.

With prodding from rotation mate Brian Bannister, Greinke has also tapped his cerebral side. He's become more conscious of fielding-independent pitching, park factors and other sabermetric data in the effort to gain every possible edge.

For example, Greinke is more inclined to throw his riding, four-seam fastball at Kauffman Stadium, where outfielders have a lot of room to roam, and to rely more on his two-seamer to induce ground balls in assorted road venues. He has seen the light of modern-day statistical analysis.

"We're messing with everything, just trying to be the best pitchers we can be," Bannister said. "I'm more of an average talent guy, and I'm trying to extract every ounce of talent that I have. And then you look at Zack: He's got a lightning bolt for an arm, creativity and the body control to execute all his pitches.

"He's not just a dumb jock out there. There's a brain behind it. When he starts using this [statistical] stuff, the sky is the limit. It's like fine-tuning a race car."

Of course, some things can't be taught. Greinke's fellow Royals still talk about his penultimate start of 2009, when he beat the Twins 4-1 to deal Minnesota a temporary setback in the AL Central race. The highlight of his performance came when he struck out Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel in succession to escape a big early jam.

Bannister loves coming to the park each day and hearing the entertaining "constant bickering" between Greinke and fellow starter Kyle Davies over who's the superior hitter. Greinke has one career home run and Davies has two, and they were arguing Saturday over which long ball traveled the farthest.

"He's the most competitive person I've ever met in my life," Bannister said of Greinke. "It doesn't matter what it is -- he will find a way to claim he's better than you at anything. Like brushing your teeth. He'll find a way to somehow criticize you about your technique and explain how he's better at it."

During a hectic offseason, Greinke had lots of people telling him how wonderful he was. He was feted at the New York Baseball Writers dinner, picked up the Wilber "Bullet" Rogan Award at the Negro Leagues Baseball museum in Kansas City and won a Players Choice Award and the Sporting News' AL Pitcher of the Year honor.

In typically quirky fashion, Greinke gave his Cy Young Award to his parents so they could display it in a place of honor above their fireplace. The only award he insisted on keeping was a samurai sword that the Mizuno sporting-goods company gave him for winning the Cy Young.

"I'm going to hang it up and maybe start a collection someday," Greinke said. "Not like a gun collection, but a samurai sword collection. I don't know if you're allowed."

Life sure has changed from the days when Greinke carried the shagging ball bag at Surprise Stadium, dressed the way he was told and fretted about his spot on the roster. He's free to march to the beat of his own drum now, in 70- to 95-mph increments. And you get the distinct impression that the best is yet to come.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer